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Why Arabs Fear a U.S.-Iran Détente

By MARWAN BISHARA
Published: October 27, 2013 NY Times
  

PARIS — Tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States over Washington’s approach to the Middle East were brewing for months before they burst into the open last week.

First, there was the American inaction in Syria and lack of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Then came America’s withdrawal of aid to the Egyptian military after the July coup. Now President Obama is pursuing a very public rapprochement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival.

The mounting disagreements between the two longtime allies is now in full public view. Last week, the head of Saudi intelligence warned that it would stop cooperating with the United States on certain issues. That came just days after Saudi Arabia stunned even some of its own diplomats when it refused a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council, citing its anger over the world’s failure to respond to the crisis in Syria.

This spat reflects the Arab world’s deepening frustration with American policy toward Syria, Egypt and Palestine — as well as extreme skepticism about a possible thaw in America’s relations with Iran.

The Arabs have learned from bitter experience that whether by confrontation or collaboration, whatever Iran, America and Israel decide to do leaves them feeling trampled. Like an African proverb says: Whether the elephants fight or play, the grass gets trampled.

America chose Iran and Israel, over their Arab neighbors, as its designated “regional cops” in the 1960s and ’70s, at the height of the Cold War. Since the United States and Iran became sworn enemies after the 1979 revolution, America’s military wishes have by and large been carried out by Arab proxies, often at great cost in blood, treasure and stability. Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are among the countries that have suffered immensely.

Strikingly, until last week, it was only Israel, not its Arab neighbors, that had criticized the thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations (even though Israel might gain a lot from a deal that curtails Iran’s nuclear ambitions).

But ultimately, reconciliation between America and Iran will require compromise over Arab, not Israeli, interests. And these interests are neither Washington’s to cede nor Iran’s to brush aside.

Arab powers fear that negotiations between America and Iran are likely to leave Israel as the one nuclear power in the region, while allowing its occupation of Palestine to continue unabated.

Improved relations between Iran and America could offer benefits: a lifting of Western sanctions and American recognition (however grudging) of Iran’s growing regional influence, starting with Syria, Bahrain and the Gulf region. The United States could use Iran’s help to stabilize Syria — as it helped with Afghanistan after 9/11.

But sooner than later, what appears to be a great diplomatic breakthrough may be revealed to be no more than hopping over a volcano.

That’s because Iranian-American détente will likely deepen the sectarian divisions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for an all-out regionwide sectarian conflict.

Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has become increasingly militarized and religiously radicalized. The Shiite-Sunni tensions that fueled the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 have only grown worse.

As the Saudi government made clear last week, authoritarian Sunni regimes in the region will probably seek to undermine — rather than accept — any agreement that foresees growing Iranian influence in their backyard.

That polarization will inadvertently help Al Qaeda and other extremist Sunni groups, who are bound to see in Iranian-Western rapprochement a tool to multiply their recruits by stoking sectarian hatred. It has already happened in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and it’s likely to continue.

The consequences are potentially disastrous. Shiite-Sunni fault lines extend through most oil-producing countries. The damage to the regional and global economy from a disruption in the supply of oil could be huge.

But none of this is preordained or inevitable.

The theological roots of the Sunni-Shiite divide might go back 13 centuries, but the violence we are witnessing today is politically motivated and aggravated by foreign intervention in the region.

The Arab states rejected America’s 2003 war in Iraq, which is now ruled by an authoritarian prime minister who is firmly under Iran’s influence. They are not taking kindly to Iran’s continued meddling in the region, including its military support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, the Syrian opposition has rejected any role for Iran in talks over the future of their country.

While the elephants have been playing, and fighting, Arab leaders have been watching and learning. They know that long-term regional stability is a game they can play, too.

With 370 million people in 22 countries that range from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, Arabs are bound to disagree about plenty of things. But they generally support a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction — and that applies to both Iran and Israel.

The Arab nations, because of their size and strategic significance, are indispensable in shaping the region’s future and its security. Alienating them is wrong — and dangerous.

If, as Mr. Obama said recently at the United Nations, he believes that it is in America’s best interest “to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous,” he needs to make sure the Arabs are part of, and don’t lose from, any future bargain with Iran.

Marwan Bishara is senior political analyst at Al Jazeera and the author of “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Perils of the Arab Revolution.”

INTERNATIONAL NEW YORK TIMES



 

 

 

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